‘Singapore – Cannot!’

“Sorry Singapore cannot. You go back M’laysia,” said the smiling customs officer, a slightly chubby chappie. A quick scan of his nametag disclosed that we were dealing with (and I kid you not) Mr. Wee. The obvious question arose… was he taking the piss? This morning was fast unraveling into a right nightmare at what was proving to be the most horrific border crossing yet in accessing over sixty countries around the globe. In principal the formalities for entering Singapore are the same for anywhere else; you get your passport stamped ‘in’ for immigration and then proceed to customs where the ‘Carnet de Passage’ gets stamped, to permit access for the bikes. Some countries require vehicle insurance and sometimes vehicle permits with everything more or less procurable at the border. Normally we try to arrive early to fill in the necessary forms and allow for possible delays but generally the business can be conducted in anything from thirty minutes to a couple of hours, but not Singapore, oh no, this was going to take a couple of days.

We were up with the birdies and outside the hotel in Johor Bahru (JB in local parlance), Malaysia, loading the bikes by the dawn’s early light. Panniers on, bags strapped secure across seat and tank, water bottles full, check out of the hotel and a final farewell wave to the charming Malaysian staff. Ten-minute ride to the Woodlands border crossing, an exit stamp in the passport from Malaysian immigration where we explained we also needed to process our carnets. The guy vaguely waved us on to customs somewhere up ahead. 8am; so far, so good… The air was buzzing with the sound of small motorcycles whizzing through on the daily commute from JB, where living is cheap and easy, to Singapore where it’s… well… not. We filtered into a steady stream of 2-wheelers, missed the pull-in for customs (it wasn’t marked) and, before we knew it, were out on the causeway over the Johor Straits headed for Singapore ‘unstamped’. We joined hundreds of little bikes all headed one way using the filter lane especially for ‘Motosikal’ and it was impossible to turn back. The road widened on the approach to the imposing Singaporean frontier post that looked like the control tower of a beached aircraft carrier and then split, offering the choice of one of four marshaling yards, each stuffed to capacity with little bikes seeking access to the island. Thousands upon thousands of bikes were backed up and slowly edging forward, feet down, towards some invisible portal way in the distance.

This was one of nature’s great migrations… Forget your David Attenborough ‘Wildebeest hordes on the plains of Africa’; forget the bison herds of bygone days or the great salmon runs in the Americas. We learned later that anything from seventy to one hundred thousand small bikes cross the border every day! It was the one occasion when arriving early at a border crossing was actually a very bad idea. On a day that was pre-destined to go down the pan, we followed one of the streams into yard No.2 and were immediately packed into the crush. Suddenly a customs guy appeared from god knows where and informed us of our error. “You have to turn back! Yard No.3! This one for locals with autopass.” Like Moses parting the Red Sea, he cleared the way for us to make a somewhat precarious U-turn amidst thousands of turned heads watching the two idiots on the monster bikes wobble our way out and on to Yard No.3, where we were immediately encased in a similar throng to the one we just left. This was the immigrant yard, mostly Philippinos, Indonesians, Tamils and many from Myanmar, they make this crossing every single day to perform all manner of tasks in Singapore. In the momentary silence, dust motes twirled in the sunlight above the herd. I have never seen such a collection of patient folk, everyone calmly waiting their turn. Thankfully the sun was still low in the sky and we were afforded some shade from its equatorial heat. No horns parped (can you imagine if this was in India?), indeed engines were switched off and folk were calmly catching up with events on their mobile phones or sitting with hands draped across handlebars in silent contemplation of the day ahead. Here and there a newspaper was sprawled across a bike and every now and again there would be a spasm of movement as we all lurched forward.

We contemplated Singapore up ahead. It was reputedly a mega-clean, no-nonsense, hi-tech metropolis; modern success story and jewel of SE Asia. It had history too from the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, who recognised the strategic significance of its harbour as the essential trade hub for this part of the world, through to the infamous WW2 surrender – the biggest single defeat in the history of British arms when 120,000 British and Commonwealth troops surrendered to an Japanese force of only 30,000. We had also contacted a fabulous ‘Workaway,’ corresponding with a lovely lady called Azra, who needed help with a free food charity, providing food for those in need through forthcoming charity events that would happen while we were there. We had been in two minds as to whether to bring the bikes at all having been warned that accessing Singapore could be complex and expensive but we planned to stay for a month and had also been warned that JB, the Malaysian mega-city on the other side of the straits, was a hotbed of crime (including bike thefts) so we decided to bring them anyway.

Finally we arrived at a small customs booth where we explained that we needed to go back to Malaysia to have our carnets stamped. Our passports were confiscated and we were told to move on through into a yet another holding area. Here another officer snapped at us to move the bikes across the yard to the offices. We started the bikes to ride across and he went ballistic, yelling at us to turn them off immediately and insisting that we must push them across. He then demanded the keys to both bikes; I have no idea what he thought we might attempt, as any further progress was obviously impossible. With keys and passports now confiscated we were marched into the office where we explained our predicament.

We sat around for nearly two hours while dozens of customs officer milled about doing bugger all. Outside the mass exodus of morning rush hour had subsided, the flow of little bikes had stopped, the big yards were closed and silence reigned over the post. Mags asked for the nearest toilet. “Are you sure?” is not a terribly reassuring reply… The toilet was a portakabin affair, the portakabin no more than a dust cover over a place of filth and excrement instantly dispelling one of the myths that Singapore was some ultra-clean haven. Eventually the necessary paperwork was dispensed and we were escorted through a gate by some armed officers and returned back over the causeway to Malaysia, where we quickly found the correct office, aided by the ever so helpful customs people and had the carnets stamped all correctly to show the bikes had now left the country. Back across the causeway, back to Singapore. Now, rush-hour over, we filtered to a small customs booth where we where our passports were stamped for a 90-day stay; great stuff… Now for the Carnets and our encounter with Mr. Wee. We were directed to the LTA office (Land Transport Agency) and explained we needed to process our Carnets. Two middle-aged ladies manning the desk were ever so friendly and explained they had to call in someone from Customs. Oh! and if we didn’t have the right documents they would send us back. “Polish couple tried same-same last week… No have insurance, no have ICP. Send’em straightback M’laysia.”

By now we were grown accustomed to listening to the corruptions known as Minglish (Malay English and now Singlish; the Singapore variant). Sometimes it just sounds like bad ‘Benny Hill’ Chinese that raises a smirk, but it also has a way of simplifying entire sentences into one of two words… ‘Can’ and ‘Cannot’. In the UK we are terribly polite. The answer to the question “Could I possibly borrow your newspaper” will invariably be something like “of course you can, no problem at all. Just let me tidy it up a little for you and there you are. I’ve finished with it anyway so just bin it when you’re done.” In Minglish this response would simply be abbreviated to one-word, one-syllable; ‘Can.’ It is a staggering application of brevity, the more so devastating for us when Mr. Wee arrived and looked at our carnets, shook his head and said another word; ‘Cannot’.

“Sorry?” we gasped “why not”.

“You need Insurance and ICP (Internal Circulation Permit) from Singapore AA”.

“Yes we understand that but can we get these here?”

“No. You must go AA Singapore. Get documents!”

“OK then can we can leave the bikes, get a taxi to the AA and get sorted? We’ll only be an hour or two at the most…”

“Cannot”

“Whynot”

“Leave bikes here one hour, bikes get clamped. Very serious problem” he frowned.

“Sorry Singapore, cannot. You go back M’laysia.”

“What, are you crazy? Why do we need to go back there? We just left the place. We just need insurance and ICP. We’re not trying to take our bikes in without the correct documents.”

“Cannot. You go back!”

By now I was close to totally losing it. Mr. Wee really was taking the piss and was sending us back. I threatened him that if we went back we would strike Singapore off our list of countries to visit on our ‘World Tour’ and just stay in Malaysia. Singapore didn’t know what it would be missing if it dared turn us away… OK, a rather pathetic threat, I’ll give you, but all I could come up with in that moment of rage, short of stamping my feet, shaking my fists and throwing a paddy. “You go. Come Singapore by taxi, get correct documents, go back M’laysia, get bikes. Then we let you in.” We were dismissed. A typed ‘rejection note’ was raised for the Malay authorities, our passports were stamped out of Singapore and a posse of armed contract security police arrived to escort us off sovereign territory.

“Push bikes all-way back,” the unsmiling, slightly plump, lady sergeant in charge said.

“How far?”

“Maybe 1km, maybe 2. No ride bikes. Cannot.”

Now Mags lost it and point blank refused. When they looked at the loaded bikes they realised what they were asking us to do. A compromise was reached…

“Wait here…” Half an hour later a trio of expensive looking mountain bikes in customs livery appeared and they saddled up to escort us back once more. It was a fair way but certainly not one or two kilometers. A section of barrier was removed and we once more exited Singapore and went back to Malaysia. Beaten.

We were both hopping mad at the intransigence and ludicrous stance taken by Singapore customs. It was all exacerbated by the fact that most of the staff had been overly officious, impolite and downright rude in the transactions. We were being sent back for not having two documents we could only obtain once we were in Singapore! In the time we had been messed around, we could easily have collected the damned documents and returned to gain lawful entry. We decided that if Malaysia granted us new 90-day visas we would forget about Singapore forever. We would be devastated at missing the Workaway for sure, but if we couldn’t even get into the country…?

It was now well into the afternoon but the nightmare continued. On reviewing the Singapore reject note, Malaysian customs decided we could only stay until our previous 90-day visa expired… the next day!!! Then we had to fly home or to another country for a month before we could return. “But what about the bikes?” They didn’t know. We had one day. We spent over seven hours up to our necks in bullshit border shenanigans today and were mentally and emotionally exhausted. A sleepless night followed as we contemplated our position. In the end we decided that the only sane option was to go back to Singapore.

4am alarm for a 5am taxi pick-up. The taxi whizzed us through customs where we were again granted a 90-day stay and dropped us off at the AA Singapore office just as they opened. We coughed up $225 for 28 day’s insurance per bike and $60 each for the ICP (@1.7 SGP dollars to the pound). Another taxi back to Malaysia (where they forgot about yesterday and now gave us new 90-day visas!!!), pick up the bikes and finally head back to Singapore. Mr. Wee was smiling as he came in to the office to greet us. He surveyed the mighty ensemble of documents arrayed across the table for two little motorcycles. “Everything now good”, he declared. “Singapore… Can go.” It took another grueling twelve hours today but we got the desired result; Singapore was go!

To be continued…

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Laid Back in Laos

Land-locked Laos; just a long streak of a country full of jungly mountains in the north running to flat-ish paddy-field plains to the south, all bordered to the west by the Mekong river that forms a natural frontier with Thailand and Cambodia. The ‘Lao People’s Democratic Republic’, to give the nation its full title, is also one of the last five remaining communist nations, the others being China, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea. Like other land-locked nations in less developed parts of the globe, Laos has been doomed to relative poverty and corruption. It also has the dubious title as one of the most bombed places on earth, the consequence of unparalleled US interdictions during the Vietnam War over thirty years ago.

On the face of it Laos didn’t seem to have much to offer as a travel destination. Even their tourist board slogan ‘simply beautiful…’ seemed a bit of a muted effort to entice tourists. Having previously travelled through older communist / socialist states, Yugoslavia (before the break up) and Algeria, it was noticeable how government interference in day to day life made those places seem dreary by stifling ambition and innovation in an attempt to ‘level out’ society with the exception of the hypocrites at the top who set the rules and then ignore them. Still we were ready for a change and, as we well know, travelling with low expectation is never a bad thing…

We exited Thailand via the most northerly border crossing with Laos at Chiang Khong via an impressive modern customs terminal where we were all stamped up and escorted over the bridge across the Mekong to the equally impressive Laos customs terminal at Houey Xai. It cost $35 each for a visa on arrival and then a friendly customs guy quickly processed our vehicle carnets and we were in. The first few days provided a steady diet of marvelous mountain roads, every bit as stunning as the Mae Hong Song loop had been in Thailand but this time the roads were a kind of Laotian lullaby that slowed down not only our riding but even our breathing and general pace of life, all fitting stuff as it delivered us into the gentle embrace of Luang Prabang. ‘Sai-ba-dee’ said Mr Thang, the young receptionist at the Villa Maha Sok, welcoming us with the traditional Laotian greeting before showing us to our cool room. Luang Prabang is Laos’ second city and cultural capital, yet it felt more like a small French provincial town nestled on a peninsula at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. The city has been fittingly declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a mix on the Mekong of Buddhist Temples and French colonial dwellings all just a stroll away down heady-scented, flower festooned lanes.

We enrolled for a day of cookery lessons that started with a mooch ‘round the market to stock up on ingredients followed by an afternoon on the wok to cook both lunch and dinner. A sedate river cruise took us to see some old caves at Pak-O and a short ride on the bikes deposited us at the utterly delectable Kuang-Si waterfalls, far and away the prettiest waterfalls on the planet. Here we hiked through the glorious nest of cascades and swam in turquoise waters, sampling our first piscine foot pedicure into the bargain. Luang Prabang could easily run for the title of ‘most laid back place on the planet’ and we easily found new excuses not to leave. Even as I sit here and write this I can feel its draw, enticing me back…

It has helped that we are travelling off-season so, although there have been one or two rain-showers, there are no crowds and accommodation comes at bargain rates with easy availability. However darker clouds loomed on our horizon as we received news of militant hill-tribes being involved in a number of shootings directly on our route south on Highway 13, the main road from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, the Laotian capital.   In March this year a bus came under automatic weapons fire, being hit 27 times, killing one Chinese tourist and wounding another 6. Then, in the previous week, a Laotian army captain was shot dead in an ambush against the military sent in to quell the trouble. Nine of the attackers were also killed in the ensuing firefight. Asking around it seems that the hill tribes are upset about land grants from government officials to Chinese immigrants; upset enough to take this drastic action. We pondered the map and the only alternatives to travelling this main road were to either backtrack all the way into Thailand and miss the rest of Laos or take to mountain trails into the heart of hill-tribe country; probably not a wise move. In the end we decided to continue with some assurance from the military presence in the area to keep the road open. If we were turned back at one of their roadblocks then so be it.

In the event, had we turned back, we would have missed one of the most awesome motorcycling roads on the planet. With switch-backs and chicanes, S-bends and U-bends, hairpins and dog-legs this was a road that cambered and careered all over a jungle-rendered mountain ridgeline that took us high up onto the clouds. We passed through tumble down villages that periodically lined the road, humble hooch shacks made from rattan and bamboo and our only interaction all day was returning the maniac smiles and waves from the hordes of grubby urchins as we passed. Our destination was the backpacker town of Vang Vieng and what a beautiful setting for the end of this magnificent day on the road as sugar loaf hanging-mountains lined the valley, a serration of backdrop guaranteed to make the jaw drop.

But then the town itself and what utter horror after the sweet florid backstreets of Luang Prabang! Vang Vieng; a tourist ‘Deadwood’, a wild-west town with chewed up muddy streets lined with backpacker hostels, lean-tos and saloons. The lovely mountain views were now obliterated by new-build, high-rise complexes rendered in foul concrete, all shooting up their re-bar’d upperworks clawing the very sky. Here was unrestrained tourism gone crazy, the opposite end of the spectrum to Luang Prabang. We stayed for a day, sampled some of the bad food on offer and found nothing here to dispel our initial impressions of the town. An afternoon hike into the nearby mountains provided some compensation and, with the view of Vang Vieng firmly at our back, it led us into some truly spectacular country.

Vientiane, our next stop, is the administrative capital and we found it a place of somewhat moderate charm. We spent a relaxing weekend exploring the city on a pair of bicycles from the hotel. Once again the abundance of flowers were providing an assault on both scent and vision. I had my eye to the camera to capture a beautiful five-petaled white blossom when the bush spoke to me… “Frangipani” it said. “Oh err…” I replied somewhat startled. “Frangipani. It’s the name of that flower. Did you know it’s the national flower of Laos? Beautiful isn’t it?” I turned to discover that I wasn’t going potty after all and that Mags was chatting with Ruth, a lively backpacker who had just enlightened us with the identification of this beautiful flower. And so a delightful friendship began, founded in in the peaceful aroma of flora. Over a lively dinner that evening we learned how Ruth and her husband Ian have been on the road for nearly a year, trekking in the Himalayas and through China. She has a fair pen for a blog too as you will see if you visit their travel site at the following link: Ian & Ruths blog

Laos the country, we were finding, is a fantastic travel destination. However we were detecting a slight air of indifference from the Laotian people who seemed somewhat sullen in their demeanour. Don’t get me wrong, we are most definitely not attention seekers but we have grown accustomed to a certain level of interest in our endeavour especially when rolling into town on a pair of never-seen-before bright yellow motorcycles. This normally encourages a lively level of engagement and it’s one of the reasons we love motorcycle travel, as the bikes themselves are such great icebreakers when you arrive at a new destination. Yet even without the bikes, in many service scenarios in shops or restaurants, there is an evident air here of ‘couldn’t care less’ from staff that continually raises the question ‘do you really want my business?’ We have heard the same opinion expressed by other travellers in Laos. Perhaps, given the country’s recent history, there is a mistrust of all foreigners? In both Luang Prabang (UXO Visitor Centre) and Vientiane (COPE exhibition) we learned more about that history and its tragic consequences.

During the Vietnam War, the Ho-Chi Minh Trail was established through eastern Laos. This infamous North Vietnamese supply route was used to move materiel from North Vietnam under the cover of jungle trails through neutral territory and deliver this to the Viet Cong rebels fighting insurgency operations in South Vietnam. The US decided something had to be done to halt the traffic and set about obliterating the trail. Both North Vietnam and the US denied they had any involvement or personnel in Laos. Consequently, there were no ‘rules of engagement’ to restrict the US operations that were applicable to operations against North Vietnam where they were anxious to appear as liberators so ‘no bombing temples’ etc. Instead Laos was carpet-bombed with more ordinance than was dropped during the entire Second World War.

The statistics made for grim reading. Between 1964 and 1973 more than 2-million tons of ordinance were dropped in over half a million sorties by US air power. A significant proportion of the munitions dropped were cluster type weapons, a sort of aerial shotgun that delivered sub-munitions (known as ‘bombies’) designed to saturate entire areas with anti-personnel mines that would later explode on contact with enemy troops moving through the area. Despite all efforts, the trail kept moving and so the missions continued and the bombing escalated. At one stage even detergents were dropped to make the mud slimier to restrict movement.

Some of the larger individual cluster weapons contained up to 600 ‘bombies’ and, of these, an estimated 78-million failed to explode and have remained dormant where they were dropped. Add to this dud artillery / mortar rounds and conventional unexploded aerial bombs and there is a horrific amount of live ammo or ‘UXO’ (Un-eXploded Ordinance) just waiting for contact to detonate. Around 200 people are killed each year. The victims are mostly innocents, from kids who pick up an appealing little cluster bomb that looks like a funny metal pineapple to farmers trying to work land that has already been seeded with a lethal crop. There are also casualties from folk trying to dismantle unexploded bombs for salvage, a lucrative proposal in impoverished Laos where a single 700-pound bomb can yield around $200 in scrap metal, a huge windfall when you consider the average annual income here is an estimated $1200.

Cluster bombs are a legacy from the Cold War, designed for use against the mass armies of the Soviet Union should they ever try and steamroll across Western Europe but they have sadly gained their main deployment in Laos and neighbouring Cambodia as a counter-insurgency weapon. Laos has initiated the ‘Convention on Cluster Munitions’, an international treaty prohibiting the use, transfer and stockpile of cluster bombs. It has been adopted by over 100 nations since its launch in 2008 but sadly the main proponents of cluster weapons, USA, Israel, Russia and China have not signed up.

We had a pleasant ride south through the Laotian lowlands with a pleasant day scrambling over the Khmer ruins at Wat Phou (pronounced ‘Poo’), a spectacular curtain-raiser for Angkor Wat just down the road in Cambodia. Our final halt in Laos was on the island of Don Khong in the ‘Si Phan Don’ region, land of the ‘Four Thousand Islands’. Here the mighty Mekong spreads into an area 14-kilometres wide looking, from the air, like a huge tray of brittle toffee that has been dropped on the ground to crackle and splinter into millions of little channels. The power of the Mekong is perhaps at its most spectacular at the Li-Phi Falls where it cascades through a myriad of spectacular broken ground on its journey south.

This is the land of Laid-Back Laos were days simply went by in a series of east bank sunrises and west bank sunsets on the Mekong made all the more pleasurable over a brace of Lao-Lao whisky cocktails. Laos has been a delightful surprise; in the balance it is a charming and magical travel destination and a place we are finding so hard to leave…

The photogallery for this posting is available by clicking the following link: Laos